Isabelle Adjani lionized in Techine’s lost masterpiece
By Armond White
Isabelle Adjani’s screen work is ethereal yet passionate. Once compared to James Dean at the time of her breakthrough role in Francois Truffaut’s 1975 The Story of Adele H., her artistry most resembles Lillian Gish’s but less maidenly and always open to a streak of madness. As a movie star, Adjani doesn’t embody her times so much as the cinema itself.
This proposition inspires “ADJANI” the two-week tribute to the French actress at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Cinematek. It starts with one of her most amazing films: Andre Techine’s 1979 The Bronte Sisters.(March 8, though not shown in the U.S. since appearing at a French Film Festival at the 57th Street Playhouse in 1980). This exceptional bio-pic was made at the prodigious height of Techine’s directorial commencement–a prestige project bringing Adjani together with France’s other Isabelle, Huppert. Techine included Marie-France Pisier, the scene-stealer of his 1975 French Provincial, to respectively portray Emily, Anne and Charlotte, Britain’s trio of romantic gothic authors.
It is through these actresses that Techine examines the mysteries of artistic creation, anchored to Emily Bronte’s legend as both the author of Wuthering Heights and the key figure of her family’s tormented heritage. It is Adjani who provides the film’s touchstone of artistic consciousness, tromping the moors in male attire, a wild spirit like both Cathy and Heathcliff.
Iconic before the word became a degraded synonym for “famous,” Adjani carries the memory of Adele H. into the turbulent Bronte household. Techine uses Adjani, the cinema’s most intense actress, to reveal the emotional conflicts of a hermetic creative family. Her co-stars enlarge and deeper the exploration: Huppert’s Anne presents a placid yet vexed surface, Pisier’s older, grave Charlotte bears quietly grave witness to the mix of anxiety, desire and artistic drive–the compulsion to express one’s self as in the case of brother Branwell Bronte (played by Pascal Greggory).
An additional co-star is Techine’s mentor, the semiotician Roland Barthes who as William Makepeace Thackeray escorts Charlotte into the cultural canon in an astonishing sequence set to Rossini’s Tancrede. Barthes/Thackeray pronounces Techine‘s credo: “Life is so unfathomable. I never managed to grasp a notion of its tricks on us. It takes forever, that’s why youthful works are always full of errors. Life is too short for art. We need much more time to harden our shell. Hard and shiny. Ironically it’s often shiny, rarely hard.”
As in French Provincial, Techine evokes the history of cinema’s literary past so that the memory of Adele H., Barry Lyndon, Violette Noziere interacts with the classic films of Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre. This makes The Bronte Sisters a philological as well as romantic work. Each actor, especially Adjani, displays swoon-worthy, melodramatic aplomb in tandem with the film’s intellectual rigor. A moment where Emily and Charlotte argue on opposite sides of a door distills the emotional power of Ingmar Bergman‘s Cries and Whispers.
Techine’s use of film lore follows French New Wave scholarship (a test for art movie connoisseurs) but advances it into thrilling postmodern sophistication. This is simply one of the greatest-looking movies ever made. Bruno Nuytten’s crystalline photography ranks with the visionary peaks of Cries and Whispers, Adele H. and Barry Lyndon–every scene an unforgettable tableau that honors the Brontes as heroes of human loyalty and artistic ambition. Hard and shiny as per Barthes, yet achingly beautiful, too. I promise anyone who sees these images in The Bronte Sisters will never forget them.
This testament to suffering, creativity and love looks forward to Terence Davies’ The Long Day Closes. Even though Techine eventually left this closed style for a more open, exploratory approach, this hones in on the essence of art practice which is also the quintessence of Adjani’s craft and star power.
Don’t miss the intensity Adjani brings to Walter Hill’s The Driver (March 9), Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu, the Vampire (March 16) and Patrice Chereau’s Queen Margot. (March 21)
Follow Armond White on Twitter at 3xchair